Street Fighting Woman

August Brauneck/Library of Congress
Lucy Parsons, 1886

With its economic instability, mass immigration, corrupting influence of money on politics, and ever-increasing gap between the rich and everyone else, our current era bears more than a slight resemblance to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, dubbed by Mark Twain the Gilded Age. There are also striking differences. Back then, larger-than-life radical organizers—Eugene V. Debs, Emma Goldman, Bill Haywood, and others—traversed the country, calling on the working class to rise up against its oppressors. Today’s critics of the capitalist order such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren seem tame by comparison.

In her time, Lucy Parsons was as celebrated a radical orator as Debs and the others. Born a slave in Virginia in 1851, she lived into the 1940s, witnessing vast transformations in the American economic and political order but also the persistent exploitation of American workers. She became a prolific writer and speaker on behalf of anarchism, free speech, and labor organization. But she has been largely forgotten, or treated as an afterthought compared with her husband, Albert, an anarchist executed after Chicago’s Haymarket bombing of 1886. Thanks to Goddess of Anarchy, Jacqueline Jones’s new biography, readers finally have a penetrating account of Parsons’s long, remarkable life.

One of the most influential historians of her generation, Jones is the author of books that sweep across centuries. Her previous works include a pioneering history of black women’s labor in America, a study of the evolution of the underclass, an account of four centuries of black and white labor, and a history of “the myth of race” from the colonial era to the present. Again and again, Jones returns to the complex connections between racial and class inequality in American history.

Jones makes clear that Lucy Parsons deserves attention apart from her martyred husband. Originally named Lucia, she was removed with other slaves to Texas by her owner (probably also her father, Jones believes) during the Civil War to prevent them from seeking refuge with the Union army. Educated after becoming free at a school established by a northern teacher, she fell in love with Albert Parsons, the descendant of early New England settlers, whose father had moved to Alabama in the 1830s. (Parsons had fought on the Confederate side and managed to survive four years of bloody fighting.) During Reconstruction, when Congress rewrote laws and the Constitution to grant legal and political equality to the emancipated slaves, Parsons embraced these radical changes. He moved to Texas, where his brother ran a newspaper, and became one of the few white leaders of the state’s predominantly black Republican Party. (Most of the other white members in Texas were German immigrants who had remained loyal to the Union and suffered severe reprisals under the Confederacy.)

Parsons worked as a journalist, political operative, and officer of the state militia as it sought to…

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